Will Assad Gift Erdoğan a Pre-Election Meeting?
By Lazghine Ya’qoube
Though not confirmed yet, Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, announced on Friday (April 28), that the quadripartite meeting involving foreign affairs ministers of Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Moscow may take place in early May. Notably, his country is in the throes of holding parliamentary and presidential elections that could end the two decade-long rule of his Justice and Development Party (AKP), that has ruled Turkish politics since November 2002.
To retain power, AKP are looking for a political breakthrough with Syria to boost their position in the current elections. The meeting – if it takes place – would serve as a precious gift to the incumbent Turkish autocrat Tayyip Erdoğan. Encouraged by Russia, Erdoğan is also seeking a meeting with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad.
This article seeks to shed light on the recent attempts by AKP officials to end the 12 year-long animosity with Syria and open a new era with its southern neighbor, and most importantly to boost its prospects of wining the elections for a new term.
Syria, which came into existence as a state in the aftermath of the political dismantlement of the decrepit Ottoman Empire at the hands of the Allies in the wake of the First World War, has always had turbulent relations with the Republic of Turkey, partially over problems emerging from the unmarked 911 km long border between both countries. Turkey’s ‘Hatay Province’ (Alexandretta), a French mandate of Syria until 1938 that was annexed by Turkey, is an example of the historical border tensions that still linger.
Likewise, water politics (Syria’s quota of water resources as a riparian state) and the Kurdish question are additional disputes that have disturbed the relations between Damascus and Ankara ever since. However, while the first two issues (the border and water) have always remained shaky and strained relations, the third one (the Kurdish question) has often been a point of compromise between the Turks and Syrians. The Adana Agreement of 1998 is a case in point. The year 1998 was a turning point in the history of relations between Ankara and Damascus, which allowed for a partial mending of old fences, with the issue of suppressing the Kurds as the motivating factor.
In the decade preceding the eruption of the 2012 Syrian crisis, relations between the two countries reached unprecedented levels as they became firm allies following a decade of mutually beneficial relations. The ascension of Bashar al-Assad to power in Damascus following his father’s death in the summer of 2000, and the attendance of the then Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer at the funeral of Hafez Assad – Syria’s longest serving head of state – added more warmth and paved the way for a new chapter in the history of Turko-Syrian relations.
At the end of 2002, AKP assumed power in Turkey. The US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, added more warmth to the already developing relations. In January 2004, Assad began a landmark visit to the Turkish capital becoming the very first Syrian head of state to visit Ankara. At the time, Assad summarized his first official trip to Ankara saying: “We have together shifted from an atmosphere of distrust to trust.” In 2008, Assad spent his family holiday on Turkish soil. Syria under Bashar Assad and Turkey under Erdoğan nurtured unprecedented relations, which developed into personal and familial bonds. Nevertheless, that friendship would soon be fractured.
Crisis in the Lion’s Den
In 2011, Syria, among other Middle Eastern and North African countries, was swept up by a wave of massive popular (initially peaceful) protests, where people called for reforms in the country. Before Syrian cities delved into violent battles one after another, Turkish officials repeatedly called on Assad to deliver reforms to his country. However, when it was clear that Assad was not listening to Turkish advice, Turkey sharpened its tone and more importantly changed its position and took the side of the Syrian opposition fighting the Syrian regime.
In 2012, Turkey closed down its embassy in Damascus. However, while diplomatic relations were severed, intelligence sharing remained, as low security meetings between the two countries were secretly held in Moscow and Baghdad. The vast majority of these security meetings between Damascus and Ankara were held under Vladimir Putin’s auspices and mediation.
By late 2015, the Russian intervention in Syria had shifted the balance of power to the advantage of the Syrian regime. Consequently, between 2016 and 2019, Turkish armed forces along with Syrian proxies of the Syrian National Army (SNA) mounted three major cross-border ground invasions into north and northwest Syria. These were: Operation ‘Euphrates Shield’ mounted in the locality of Jarablus in west Euphrates in August 2016, Operation ‘Olive Branch’ against the Kurdish city of Afrin in north Aleppo in January 2018, and Operation ‘Peace Spring’ against Serê Kaniyê and Girê Sipî on the border with Turkey up to the Hasaka-Aleppo international highway commonly referred to as M4, in October 2019.
During the long years of the Syrian war, Erdoğan called his one-time friend a terrorist and said there could be no peace in Syria with Assad in office. For his part, the Syrian leader declared Erdoğan a thief for stealing Syrian lands and pointed out Ankara’s support for ISIS terrorism. However, this animosity now seems to be fading under current geopolitical realities.
The process of restoring relations between the two neighboring countries began in the aftermath of the failure by Erdoğan to receive a green light for his long-delayed ground invasion against the Kurds in northeast Syria (Rojava) last year. Ever since, Turkey’s ruling party (AKP) seems to have come to the realization that it should change the priorities of its engagement in Syria from toppling the Assad regime to the prevention of a “secessionist” Kurdish enclave in the north of the country. In May 2022, Erdoğan named Tal Rifat in north Aleppo and Manbij in the west of the Euphrates River as the potential target(s) of his much-awaited operation. Yet, in both localities, there are Russian bases home to Russian Military Police personnel. The Russian steadily opposed the Turkish aspirations.
Amid reports of troop deployment and rumors that orders were given to factions of SNA operating under the directives of the Turkish armed forces to mobilize and get ready to receive the zero hour, nothing materialized. However, according to Erdoğan it was only a matter of time and Turkey would attack at a time of their choosing. Of course, the reality is that Turkey cannot attack Syria to go after the Kurds without the approval of either Russia or the US.
However, following a tripartite (Turkish-Iranian-Russian) meeting in the Iranian capital Tehran in mid-July last year, the Turkish President failed to have his operation blessed by Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the Iranian leader Ebrahim Raisi. Then, in August, in a meeting held in the Black Sea city resort of Sochi, Putin seems to have convinced Erdoğan to refrain from mounting his ground operation into Syrian territories. Not only this, on his plane returning home, Erdoğan buried the hatchet with Assad when he told reporters that he was ready to engage in talks with the Syrian leader and embark upon a new era between Damascus and Ankara.
In Damascus, Assad refused the proposal Erdoğan presented by saying he was not ready to meet with the Turkish leader. The Syrian leader had in December 2019, (two months into Turkey’s invasion of Serê Kaniyê and Girê Sipî) said he “would meet Erdoğan only if that served Syria’s interests.” Days later, Çavuşoğlu claimed he had a short chat with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad on the margins of the Non-Allied Movement summit in October 2021 in Belgrade. But Mekdad denied the meeting categorically.
Repeatedly, Syrian officials have stated that before any negotiations can take place, Turkey must first withdraw its forces from all occupied Syrian territories, and second halt support given to all of the Syrian opposition dubbed as ‘terrorists’ by Damascus. For their part, in October 2022, the Turks said they could render Syrians support in order to get rid of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Kurdish-led Administration of Rojava. However, no tangible acts were undertaken on the ground. Later, the Turkish leader would float a new idea.
In mid-December, Erdoğan said he had invited the Russian leader to a trilateral meeting with Assad. According to Erdoğan’s proposal, this conference should be preceded by consultations between intelligence, defense, and foreign Ministers. Days later, and as 2022 was drawing to a close (December 26 to be exact), Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, and head of Turkish Intelligence Services (MIT) Hakan Fidan met their Syrian counterparts Ali Mahmoud Abbas and Ali Mamlouk in Moscow. The breakthrough conference, which was attended by Russia’s defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, was the first high-profile official meeting between Syria and Turkey in a decade.
The meeting seems to have laid the foundation stone for the slow but steadily ongoing improvement in relations. On January 5, Erdoğan said that he may sit down with the Syrian leader to foster peace and stability in Syria. “Turkey, Russia and Syria have launched a process in Moscow,” the Turkish leader said. Great hopes were attached to the New Year. In mid-January, Turkey’s top diplomat said he would meet Mekdad in early February. However, the process – seemingly lacking confidence among others – has proven to be a very slow one.
In the early hours of February 6, the world woke up to a disastrous earthquake hitting southeast Turkey and northwest Syria, claiming thousands of lives in both countries and paralyzing all aspects of life. The natural disaster’s impacts were felt elsewhere on the political arena in both countries with some variance. Ever since, the earthquake has been shaping politics in the region in favor of Syria, a country burdened by a decade-long war and crippled by the economic sanctions imposed by the West. However, while the issue of Syria’s return to the Arab fold is seen by many observers as only a question of time, there remains the issue of Turkey, which occupies large Syrian territories in the north and northwest.
On March 14, Assad paid a visit to Moscow where he praised Russia as a trusted mediator. In the same meeting with Putin, the Syrian leader took a principled public position and said, “We won’t meet Erdoğan until Turkey ends its illegal occupation of Syrian territories.”
On the surface, the proposal made by Erdoğan seems to have borne fruits when on April 3-4, deputy foreign Minister of Syria, Turkey, Russia, and Iran met in Moscow to discuss issues of concern and bring Syria and Turkey closer. Attended by Ayman Sousan, Burak Akcapar, Mikhail Bogdanov, and Ali Asghar Khaji, the meeting was described as “constructive.” Originally scheduled to take place on March 15-16, the meeting was postponed at the last-minute owing to “technical reasons”, according to a Turkish source.
In Moscow, Syria’s negotiator Ayman Sousan stressed the need to “end the illegal Turkish presence on Syrian territories, not to interfere in Syrian internal affairs, and to counter terrorism in all its forms”, according to Syria’s state-run news agency SANA. Being part of the Astana format, Iran (at its own request) has been taken on board.
Meanwhile, the Syrians have not affirmed nor disaffirmed the statement made by the Turkish top diplomat regarding May’s long-delayed conference, whose precise date and place (highly likely to be Moscow) have yet to be decided. However, regardless of the place, the timely date of such a conference that could best serve AKP officials would be before the pivotal May 14th elections in Turkey.
Relatedly, Mevlut Çavuşoğlu said in an interview with TRT:
“Several dates were suggested and we said which were convenient for us. Now we are waiting for an answer from other countries and then we will wait for an invitation from Russia. With a high degree of probability, a meeting between foreign ministers will be held in Moscow in the first ten days of May.”
Then, in April, Mekdad conducted a shuttle diplomacy travelling to a number of Arab capitals seeking unsparingly to rekindle ties with the Arab countries and regain Syria’s seat at the Arab League, which was suspended in 2012 over the regime’s violent crackdown against the opposition. Simultaneously, Mekdad attended an Arab foreign affairs ministers conference in the Jordanian capital Amman. The regional meeting aimed at discussing a “Jordanian initiative to reach a political solution to the Syrian crises” according to a Jordanian Foreign Ministry spokesperson. On Wednesday (May 3rd), Iranian leader Raisi is scheduled for a two-day trip to Damascus to be the first Iranian ‘presidential’ visit to Syrian soil since 2010.
It is true that any meeting of the foreign affairs ministers of Turkey and Syria (attended by Russia and Iran) could boost the position of AKP in the current elections, but it is true too that any real reconciliation between Damascus and Ankara is a long way ahead. While limiting the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and destroying the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) could create a common ground for both countries to converge, Idlib, Afrin, Serê Kaniyê and Girê Sipî, among other issues, are diverging points between Ankara and Damascus. Syrians want guarantees from the Turks that they will withdraw from their occupied areas. But the Turks say they cannot make such a pledge while Kurdish “terrorists” (their word for the YPG & YPJ who defeated ISIS) remain deployed near their southern border.
Turkey has the Alouk Water Station that could supply the city of Hasaka and its countryside with drinking water as a card to play. Its observation posts on the southbound M5 that connects Aleppo and Lattakia and passes through Idlib is also a card that could possibly be exchanged with territories east of the Euphrates. This, however, could entail new waves of internally displaced people who would head towards the already overcrowded northwest, which could shoulder Turkey with additional burdens in case of any withdrawal by Turkish forces from these localities. The presence in Turkey of nearly 4 million Syrian refugees is one of the most pressing issues. Syrian opposition factions (which feel uneasy with such a reconciliation) supported by Turkey and dubbed terrorists in Damascus cannot be dissolved with the stroke of pen, at least in the mid-term. And Turkey will not be able to put the proverbial jihadist monster that they created and used as a proxy for the past nine years back in the box so easily.
Should the quartet conference take place or not, at this current state of affairs, the prospects of any genuine or sustainable reconciliation between the two countries are very slim. However, the recently Chinese-brokered agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia (two ardent nemeses), added to the potential re-admittance of Syria to the 22 member Arab League – the latter though mostly symbolic – are hard proof that there are no permanent friends nor enemies in politics, and that something new could be taking place in the region.
Today, Assad seems more confident than ever and is more well positioned than his once upon a time friend who is dangling from a cliff. In Syrian politics, there is a non-binding rule that entails “If you want something from Syrians, you have to go to Syria.” In that regard, the Syrian leader has his own cards to play and may be the ultimate King (or perhaps Sultan) maker.